By Rabbi Rory Katz
Rosh Hashanah 5780
When moving to a new home, my father used to say that the first thing he would do would be to set up his stereo. Only then would he be able to say, 'all right, here I am: home.' Once he had the Grateful Dead up and playing on his stereo, that’s when he would start unpacking.
When I was ten years old, I found out my family was moving. Wanting to be like my dad, I decided I would have to figure out what my version of his stereo would be.
I decided on my rock collection.
I had quartzes, pieces of mica, rocks I’d collected on family beach trips and many other kinds of rocks whose names I was sure I’d never forget, but which I don’t remember anymore. All of these I planned to unpack first. But where would I put them, and how would I know when they—and I—had arrived home?
It turns out that putting all your most precious possessions on a log next to a creek running through the backyard (this was semi-rural Pennsylvania) is not such a good idea. Most of Ridley Creek is covered in brambles and vines but I’d discovered this one little enclave a few days after my family moved in. There was fallen log there that was perfect for sitting on while I looked are the chipmunks and birds and wondered how to make friends with such strange, lively creatures, the only other creatures in the whole world who knew about my new special spot.
I was thrilled to have found the perfect home for my precious rock collection.
I was ready to settle down into my new home too.
But six months later, Hurricane Floyd passed through our town and Ridley Creek flooded and my rock collection was washed away. Completely away. I was heartbroken.
After the flood, I avoided the woods. I especially did not want to visit the spot with the log and the bird and chipmunks along the creek’s banks between the brambles and the vines. I no longer knew how to connect to my new home, and I stopped trying to figure out how. I didn’t want to put any more of myself into this place.
Since that episode, I have made the same mistake many times. I have watched others around me make the same mistake too. When the woods take away from us something we care about—something we’ve invested ourselves in—we take ourselves away from the woods.
This season, we’re encouraged to engage in Cheshbon Hanefesh, or taking account of the soul. Perhaps someone or something has broken your trust. Maybe you entrusted someone with an object or a piece of personal information and they didn’t care for it properly. How have you reacted? Have you found yourself withdrawing from that person or thing?
Or perhaps you feel disappointed by God. As we sit together today, are you listening to the words of our prayers? Do they sound hollow? Or are you wondering—or even doubting—if you can still pray at all?
Sometimes it can be important to withdraw.
But sometimes, I worry that we withdraw too quickly. We assume that if something or someone doesn’t behave the way we expect it to, it is untrustworthy.
But sometimes that’s not the case.
In hindsight, when I think about my long lost rock collection, it’s not that Ridley Creek was untrustworthy. Ridley Creek did what all creeks do—it flooded. So in that sense, it was very trustworthy in that it behaved just like all creeks do. As a ten year old, I had unrealistic expectations of how the creek should react to a hurricane. My Cheshbon HaNefesh focused too much on my own experience, so I couldn’t take into account the full picture.
When we look at today’s liturgy, we may get the sense that we are supposed to look only at what we’ve done as individuals and what we want to do differently. But to take account of where we’re at requires us to take into account our surroundings, too.
According to tradition, Rosh Hashanah marks the anniversary of the creation of humanity, but interestingly, it is referred to as Hayom Harat Olam, the day the world was created. Why then is today not Hayom Harat Adam, the day that humanity was created?
I would argue that it seems like the significance of the day is not that humanity was created, but through the creation of humanity, the world was created. It seems as though the Olam, the world, was not complete until humanity was formed. This is not a day to look out at nature as if we are separate from it all, but rather, the beginning of our relationship with it.
(For those of you who have spent the past decades thinking that Rosh Hashanah marks the first day of creation and are now confused, I feel obligated to cite my sources. Rosh Hashanah being the anniversary of the creation of humanity is referenced in many midrashim including Vayikra Rabbah and Pesikta D’Rav Kahana, it’s in Rabbenu Bachya as well as in the Tosafot of Rosh Hashanah 8a-b.)
I hope the text scholars in the audience are now satisfied and for those of you for whom what I just said was a bunch of gibberish, you can start paying attention again now.
Rosh Hashanah also then marks the day that the first human had to figure out who they were in relationship to their landscape, their environment, their new home. Adam didn’t start out by setting up his stereo, or by lining up all of his precious rocks on the stream bank. But all of Adam’s initial actions did begin to form his relationships with his world, with God, and with Eve—by listening to God’s initial instructions to eat from all of the trees except the Tree Of Knowledge; by naming the animals one by one; and also by choosing to eat the fruit Eve gives him, ignoring the instructions that he had just heard. Moment by moment, action by action, Adam learns about himself and about the world around him. He could not learn about one without the other, and neither can we. As we learn about ourselves and simultaneously learn about our surroundings—that kind of learning is Cheshbon HaNefesh.
Having just moved here seven weeks ago, the theme of doing Cheshbon HaNefesh in a new place is hitting close to—ready yourself for the pun—home. I’m paying close attention to how I can integrate myself into this city—the land and the people—and also into Chevrei Tzedek. How do I fit in, and how do we all fit in with one another?
Now I may be the newest Baltimore resident in the room—unless, is there someone even newer than I am in the room? But even if you come from one of those families that has been in Baltimore for generations or even if you have been a member of Chevrei Tzedek from its very first days, these questions still apply to you. Because our landscapes--our city, our families, our relationships, our synagogue, the Jewish community more generally—all of it is always changing. Even my dad, who assuredly told me his stereo would always be the first thing he would set up in every new place he lived—my dad doesn’t even own a stereo anymore. He uses his iPhone and speakers. Like it or not, the landscape keeps changing, and we all need to look at it.
So today, take a look: what are your landscapes that you need to examine in order to do a holistic Cheshbon HaNefesh? Is it your family landscape, the Jewish landscape, the Baltimore landscape, the American landscape? What are the environments that you need to be looking at in order to understand your place? Only once you have answered that question for yourself can you really move on to examining how you fit into those landscapes this past year, and to thinking about what your role should be in the year to come.
The author and activist Barry Lopez writes about how people connect with a new place, and how a new landscape into a home. His words may serve as a helpful guide for us in our Cheshbon HaNefesh this year:
When we enter the landscape to learn something, we are obligated, I think, to pay attention rather than constantly to pose questions. To approach the land as we would a person, by opening an intelligent conversation. And to stay in one place, to make of that one, long observation a fully dilated experience. We will always be rewarded if we give the land credit for more than we imagine, and if we imagine it as being more complex even than language. In these ways we begin, I think to find a home, to sense how to fit a place. (From The Rediscovery of North America)
These words articulate a quiet attentiveness to the outside world that does not neglect the inner world. They help us remember that there is a certain egocentrism that can happen when too much of my Cheshbon HaNefesh becomes internal. That our ideas of what a place, a person, or a community, should be like can get in the way of what it actually is like. That the only way to learn is to listen.
So, as I find my place in my new city and new community, I’m trying to follow Barry Lopez’s advice to pay close attention.
In my first few weeks, I’ve been reading and collecting stories. I’ve met with a handful of you and started to learn about you and your stories, and hope to meet with many more soon. I’ve been meeting rabbis of other synagogues in the area as well as clergy from other faiths. I’ve met individuals from the Associated and its partner Jewish institutions. And two weeks ago, I met with Debbie Agus, one of the founding members of this synagogue, to hear the story of how Chevrei Tzedek came to be. Though it was a new story for me, perhaps remembering can also help us re-emplace ourselves in this special place.
Debbie told me the story of a Shabbat dinner at a friend’s house, which quickly become something much greater. “We were a bunch of friends who got together on Shabbat sometimes who realized that we had a dream of doing something bigger. We wanted to be more than a clique of friends. We wanted to hold services that didn’t meet in anyone’s house, so no one would feel like an outsider or like they were imposing. We wanted to meet in a place where anyone could feel welcome. And we wanted to be a real community that lived out our values together.”
The first of these values Debbie told me about was learning through doing, but to be honest, this was the value that stuck out to me throughout her story.
“We wanted to make the services ourselves,” she said. “some of us already knew how to run a service, some of us didn’t but were willing to learn. We wanted a rabbi, but we didn’t want that person to run everything by themself--we wanted the rabbi to teach and to help make sure we kept learning. We wanted to be a community of learners where we were all making the service happen and all of us were learning new skills along the way.”
Learning through doing was how they wanted to treat each other. From the start, this community strove to being a place all members contributed their labor to the many tasks that make a shul feel like a community: to welcoming newcomers, helping make a minyan at a shiva house, to prepping and serving food for kiddush, and cleaning up afterwards.
Learning through doing was also how they approached their social justice work. Different years, the focus was on different projects but all of them encouraged their members to dive deeply into learning about a social issue that they didn’t know much about before.
After the initial meeting, the founders spread the word about an interest meeting to gauge public enthusiasm for their idea. They put an ad in the Jewish Times. Hundreds of people showed up to that first meeting. Today, many of the original members have moved or found that their needs have shifted, but there are still a couple of members who were at that initial meeting--Barbara, Sharon, Joe... Is there anyone else I missed who is here today?
From that first meeting, there was clear interest, and time showed that people were not just casually interested--they had the drive to put in the work to make their vision happen, to turn their values into action. So soon the congregation was up and running.
I share this origin story with you not just because Rosh Hashanah is not just a day of origin myths that help us remember where we come from, but also because having a sense of where we come from will help us engage in Cheshbon Hanefesh together this year. Every time we do Cheshbon HaNefesh involves not just looking inward, but also looking all around us--to our pasts, out at our current surroundings, and even to our futures.
Turning to the present, looking around this room today, I can see that the dream of those who founded our community still captivates many hearts. These very high holiday services are only happening because so many of you contribute to making them happen through both flashy work and grunt work. So many of you contribute through kiddush, or visiting people when they are sick, or educating our kids, or making sure our donors get thanked. As we do our Cheshbon Hanefesh, we need to pay attention to--and fully appreciate--all of that.
Now, to turn to the future: today marks the 30th anniversary of the first High Holiday services that Chevrei Tzedek has every held. 30 years ago, Chevrei Tzedek’s first members were engaged in their own Cheshbon HaNefesh, trying to understand who they were in their landscape and how that might impact what they should strive for over the next year. Perhaps in five or ten or twenty years this community will be here for yet another new year celebration, and will, as part of their Cheshbon HaNefesh, take account of who you were today—what your dreams are, what values you are trying to live out, what big things you want to achieve and experience. In five, ten, or twenty years, what might the Chevreiniks of the future think of your accomplishments? Will you be someone they wonder, what must it have been like to feel what you are feeling, or hope or what you’re hoping for? Will you be someone who they’ll think, could I have done what they did?
As you do your Cheshbon Hanefesh this year, I pray that your dreams for yourself and for all of us may be big and bright, but not so bright that they distract from our context. I hope you will not treat your hopes like a precious rock collection and place them by a creek, so that we do not place our efforts and dreams in places where they are likely to get washed away by a flood.
Instead, let us start by paying attention—close attention—to the world around us. Let us approach it as Barry Lopez encourages us, with an appetite to learn about our environment once, to assume that the landscape has shifted since last year even without noticing. This kind of Cheshbon Hanefesh may take a little longer than this period that some say ends at the end of Yom Kippur and some say lasts until the end of Sukkot. But I hope you will give this the time that it deserves and that only once you have truly entered deep intimate and intelligent conversation with our context, then may you find the perfect place to put safely place your precious dreams and may you then find many opportunities live out your values amidst a year of fully dilated experiences.
Shanah Tovah U”Metukah
May each of you be blessed with a good and sweet new year.
Torah Portion: Vaetchanan
Dvar Torah on Deuteronomy 3:23-26
There we were in the land of Moav, on the 1st day of the 11th month in the 40th year of wandering in the desert.
Moses is standing before the whole people, recounting the voyage thus far.
At first, he reminds us of our victories over the Amorites and how we began to take hold of the land that would become some of ancient Israel:
So the LORD our God also delivered into our power King Og of Bashan, with all his men, and we dealt them such a blow that no survivor was left.
At that time we captured all his towns; there was not a town that we did not take from them: sixty towns, the whole district of Argob, the kingdom of Og in Bashan--
all those towns were fortified with high walls, gates, and bars—apart from a great number of unwalled towns.
We doomed them as we had done in the case of King Sihon of Heshbon; we doomed every town—men, women, and children--
and retained as booty all the cattle and the spoil of the towns.
Thus we seized, at that time, from the two Amorite kings, the country beyond the Jordan, from the wadi Arnon to Mount Hermon--
He sounds like a typical war hero. His words echo descriptions of many other military victories and sound meant to instill hope as the Israelites prepare to conquer the land of Israel. As a meandering, vulnerable, recently-enslaved people his words probably made the people feel strong, powerful--all of the things they lacked when they were enslaved.
At the beginning of this week’s parasha, however, Moses’ tone shifts dramatically.
That is the name of this week’s Torah portion, meaning “And then I pleaded.”
It is not often we hear of military leaders pleading at all, especially if the pleas are ineffective. But here, we witness Moses not just pleading--we witness him RETELLING the story of pleaing before God, and ALSO how his plea is flat-out rejected by God.
Va’etchanan el Hashem
“And then I pleaded to God and said
‘O Lord GOD,
You who let Your servant see Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal!
Let me, please, cross over and see the good land
on the other side of the Jordan.’”
It takes an extraordinary amount of vulnerability and a very special leader to be able to share their deepest desires before an entire people. For a lot of us, it’s hard to share our desires even in private, whether it’s a job you really want that you might not get, whether it’s a career or hobby you want to pursue but don’t know if you’ll be any good at, or whether it’s telling someone “I love you” who might not say it back
Moses, special leader that he is, not only has the vulnerability to express his deep desire to see the land on the other side of the Jordan to God, but he is even willing to recount that experience, as well as God’s rejection before his entire people.
It is hard to imagine having a leader in America today willing to show that kind of vulnerability before an entire audience. In today’s culture, Moses’ behavior would be very countercultural.
The Jewish community no longer has a leader like Moses, and will never have another leader like Moses. BUT we are all inheritors of his teachings--that is why we traditionally refer to him as Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher. And without a Moses to lead our community, we all must step into his legacy of leadership to keep us moving forward toward the Promised Land.
The first part of Moses’ leadership legacy is instilling a sense of hope and strength and power. To that end, I want to recognize the incredible leadership of the 35+ Chevrei members of all ages who participated in the protest in Howard County. Without your presence and your voices, fewer people would even know about the massive atrocities that are being committed against detained individuals in this country. By showing up and expressing your desires, you make change possible. There is much more work to do, but your example, gives me and I’m sure many others the hope and the energy to take the next step in stopping our government from violating the human rights of migrants and immigrants.
The second part of Moses’s leadership legacy is recognizing our vulnerabilities and our desires. The root of the Hebrew word for Moses’ prayer to God וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן is chet-nun-nun, which is the same as the root for the word “chen”, which is the Hebrew word for grace. According to Rashi, this implies that Moses made his request to God without making any argument or justification for why he should to enter the land. He does not reflect upon his qualifications but rather places his desire, simply and straightforwardly, depending on God’s will to grant him permission to enter the land or not.
As we move into Elul and focus on repairing our interpersonal relationships, in order to make deep shifts, we will have to look openly at where we stand with one another, and what we want to ask for from one another. We might find ourselves asking for forgiveness in a situation where we don’t think we deserve it. We need to take the risk of being open with our desires and risk not getting what we want. It’s very vulnerable and uncomfortable, but this too is a kind of leadership.
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we will make many supplicatory prayers. We will sing the prayer Avinu Malkenu, we will say:
Avinu Malkenu Chanenu,
Be gracious to us
Chanenu the same root, chet-nun-nun, as V’etchanan. Our prayer will follow Moses’ model, giving us a chance to get in touch with our deepest desires, whether we think we deserve them or not, whether we have any realistic hope of getting the thing that we want or not.
Part 1 of Moses’ leadership legacy--the instilling of hope, of strength, of power--that kind of leadership is all over the place in American culture. Part 2--the risking vulnerability--that is what is so countercultural. I’m proud to be joining a community here that is not afraid to be countercultural, to hold different values than the mainstream, and that not only CAN embrace a legacy of leadership that is just a little different than the mainstream, but that actually RELIES on its whole community to take on leadership to be the daringly whole-hearted enterprize that Chevrei Tzedek is.
Let us then step into the leadership legacy of Moshe Rabbenu, yes by instilling hope and strength in one another and also by sharing our visions and desires with one another, in all of their vulnerability.
Bit by bit, perhaps we can amplify a different vision of leadership, one that is as old as Moses would be if he were here, and is renewed with each leader who steps up.
Rory Katz is the rabbi of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation in Baltimore. She was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in May 2019.